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Advice to a Billionaire

Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance calls you one of three Black Swans in the world of energy and transportation this century; the other two being Fracking and Fukushima. You are often compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Iron Man, and shades of Einstein. You have advised Presidents. Heads of state visit your factories to see how they could improve the lives of their citizens. You stepped in without fanfare to donate money and provide power to a hospital in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. You issue audacious challenges to yourself and to others and sometimes miss deadlines, but ultimately deliver on your promises. Thousands, perhaps millions of people, speculate against you in the stock markets, hoping to make a quick profit from your failure. So far, they’ve been disappointed. But you put your money where your mouth is, so for every one of these speculative sharks, there are a thousand eager customers for your products and millions of well-wishers who hope you can help save the planet.

And yet you feel alone and unloved. You search for a soul mate and are willing to fly to the ends of the earth to find true love. You must know that love is like a butterfly. Be still and perhaps it will land on you. There are no guarantees, but the chances are infinitely greater if you cultivate stillness. And while you wait, exchange your loneliness for the wealth of solitude. As Hannah Arendt and Plato observed: Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business.

As the father of five children, know also that their childhood is a precious and finite resource that you could use to your benefit and theirs. Childhood ends all too soon, so help them in whatever way you can to make good choices. You seem to have done so for yourself. In the meantime, millions of people around the world wish you well, as I do.

Carbon Countdown Clock

Image:courtesy usgs

Ah, Trump. Has pulled the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the Paris Accord. Was promised. Was to be expected. The one campaign promise that this prevaricating president did keep. The Guardian newspaper has usefully provided an online carbon countdown clock to show the world how time is running out. I believe Trump’s action might provoke the rest of the world to come together to save our common future.


Click on the link above to see how much time we have left.


Hinkley. Oh no!

The political decision to power ahead with Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is the energy equivalent of appointing a tone deaf musical director to the London Symphony Orchestra. How much more evidence do Cameron and Co. need? A short litany of anti-Hinckley arguments should suffice.

2002 – British Energy bankrupted and rescued by British taxpayers to the tune of £10 billion (p.29, World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2011)
2005 – Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 3, in Finland, built along the same design proposed for Hinkley 3. Construction began in July 2005, scheduled for completion in 2010 at a projected cost of €3 billion (£2.34 billion). Still incomplete in 2016 with total costs amounting to more than £6.6 billion so far and not a single unit of power generated.
China is offering to invest £6 billion in Hinckley while, in its own backyard, renewables outspend new nuclear five to one. (approx. £103 billion budgeted for nuclear upto 2020 compared to £62 billion spent on renewables in 2015 alone).
Hinkley 1

Hinkley 1

In a case of economics speaking truth to power, the OECD’s 2010 World Energy Outlook quietly increased the average lifetime of a nuclear power plant to 45-55 years, up 5 years from its 2008 edition.

Finally, the single paragraph below from p.31 of the 2011 Nuclear Energy Status Report (first link above) should make anyone sit up and pay attention.
It is important to note that the economics of nuclear energy are very different when considered from a societal point of view, rather than from a strictly corporate perspective. Most governments advocate the “polluter pays principle,” meaning that those who consume the energy from a nuclear plant should also pay for the wider impacts on society and the environment—including impacts associated with decommissioning and waste disposal. This assumes, however, that future generations will have the funds to carry out these hazardous tasks. The timescales for investment and return are so long that even the most conservative financing scheme will have a significant risk of failure. The mechanism to provide cash to pay for decommissioning nuclear facilities in the United Kingdom already has failed comprehensively, leaving undiscounted liabilities of some £100 billion ($165 billion) but few funds available, putting the burden on future taxpayers.
 How much more needs to be said?
Meanwhile, the BBC noted on 26-10-2005 “Wind turbine farms rejected.”
The exposed location of Hinkley Point meant that it was considered ideal for wind generation. However, a proposal to build 12 wind turbines close to the site of the nuclear power stations was turned down in October 2005.[4] The reason given by the local council for the rejection was safety fears over what would happen were a turbine blade to detach and hit “something or somebody”
For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.

The Flea on the Behind of an Elephant

Scroll backwards in time to the early 1970s. US President Richard Nixon appointed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to produce a study of recommendations on “The Nation’s Energy Future” based on advice from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Requesting the AEC for energy prognoses is akin to asking a tiger for dietary recommendations; there will surely be no vegetables on the menu! Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, chair of the AEC, predicted in her summation of the report that “solar would always remain like the flea on the behind of an elephant.” In the early 1980s I knew another eminent researcher, Dr. Thomas Henry Lee, a Vice President for research under Jack Welch at General Electric, who often stated that nuclear power would produce “energy that is too cheap to meter,” essentially free.

The AEC study, when it was published, proposed a $10 billion budget for research and development with half going to nuclear and fusion, while the rest would be spent on coal and oil. A mere $36 million was to be allocated to photovoltaics (PV). Dr. Barry Commoner, an early initiator of the environmental movement, was intrigued that the NSF had recommended such a paltry amount for solar. In the 1950s he had successfully lobbied for citizen access to the classified results of atmospheric nuclear tests and was able to prove that such tests led to radioactive buildup in humans. This led to the introduction of the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963.

Dr. Commoner’s own slogan (the first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else) prompted him to question the AEC’s paltry allocation for solar PV, especially since he knew some of the members of the NSF panel who advised on the recommendations. He discovered the NSF panel’s findings were printed in a report called “Subpanel IX: Solar and other energy sources.” This report was nowhere to be found among the AEC’s documents until a single faded photocopy was unexpectedly discovered in the reading room of the AEC’s own library. The NSF’s experts had foreseen in 1971 a great future for solar electricity, predicting PV would supply more than 7% of the US electrical generation capacity by the year 2000 and the expenditure for realising the solar option would be 16 times less than the nuclear choice.

Clearly, the prediction of 7% solar electric generation has not yet happened, but current efficiency improvements in photovoltaics and battery storage technologies point the way to an energy future far beyond what the NSF predicted in 1971. Fifty years from now, it is nuclear power that is likely to be the flea on the behind of a solar elephant.

Terrorism and Climate Change: A Single Solution

Much of the electricity that lights the world is generated by burning oil.

Two thirds of the world’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels.

Much of the world’s wars and terrorism occur in the Middle East where, not so coincidentally, much of the world’s oil also originates. A lot of the world’s climate change problem (the majority of the world by now admits that there is a problem) is due to burning fossil fuels. In 2013, oil provided around 33% of global primary energy consumption* (i.e. energy contained in fuels used to generate electricity, heating, industry, transportation or other end users). This amounts to nearly 87 million barrels of oil per day. One third of this oil came from the Middle East.

The World Coal Association states that (in 2013): Coal provides around 30.1% of global primary energy needs, generates over 40% of the world’s electricity and is used in the production of 70% of the world’s steel. Coal is more democratically distributed around the world than oil, and there is not much likelihood of wars being fought over coal reserves. Coal is also a relatively “dirty” fuel and produces more CO2 (ca. 200) per unit of energy delivered than oil (ca. 150) or natural gas (117).

A listing of principal terror groups in the world includes ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sharia, Hezbollah and Hamas. Al-Jazeera news notes that the United Arab Emirates published this week a list of 80 organisations worldwide, including the foregoing, that it formally identified as terrorists. Some of the organisations on that list perhaps do not belong there, but the larger point to be made in this article still holds. When great wealth flows from all parts of the world into the hands of a few, great disparities ensue; injustice and violence occur. The world needs to get off its greed for oil and move to renewable sources of energy. Of course the transition will be painful; but less disruptive than continued terror. Reduced global oil consumption can lessen the flow of disproportionate wealth that the world directs into the coffers of a few by 20 to 30% in the next ten years.

Is the transformation do-able within this time frame? The world’s experts are divided fairly equally between yes and no. Why? Because it hasn’t been done before. But here is an indirect answer. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) has revised its estimates for deployment of renewables worldwide upwards several times in the past decade. The forecasts made in 2002 for the year 2020 were exceeded by the year 2010. So perhaps the correct answer is not to be found among energy experts but in a quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939) who said:

Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.

Paraphrased less poetically into modern business-speak: walk the walk, don’t simply talk! We have to make choices as individuals before nations and governments follow in our footsteps.

*For more background, see Energy Trends Insider, with links to BP’s widely used Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. Oil accounted for 33 percent of all the energy consumed in the world in 2013. This amounts to 86.8 million barrels per day. Of this, roughly 32% came from the Middle East.


2 Recent Books: Burning Question, and Burning Answer

The burning question was asked in May 2013 by Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark and Mill McKibben. The Burning Answer was published a year later, in May 2014 by Keith Barnham, a physicist with practical experience in industry. The topics raised in these two books, the questions posed, and the answers to them will change the world in the coming decades.

The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?
by Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark and Bill McKibben
May 2013

The Burning Question reveals climate change to be the most fascinating scientific, political and social puzzle in history. It shows that carbon emissions are still accelerating upwards, following an exponential curve that goes back centuries. One reason is that saving energy is like squeezing a balloon: reductions in one place lead to increases elsewhere. Another reason is that clean energy sources don’t in themselves slow the rate of fossil fuel extraction.Tackling global warming will mean persuading the world to abandon oil, coal and gas reserves worth many trillions of dollars — at least until we have the means to put carbon back in the ground. The burning question is whether that can be done. What mix of politics, psychology, economics and technology might be required? Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy? Will we wake up to the threat in time? And who can do what to make it all happen?

The Burning Answer: A user’s guide to the solar revolution
by Keith Barnham
May 2014

Our civilisation faces a choice. We could be enjoying a sustainable lifestyle but we have chosen not to. In three generations we have consumed half the oil produced by photosynthesis over eight million generations. In two generations we have used half our uranium resources. With threats from global warming, oil depletion and nuclear disaster, we are running out of options. Solar power, as Keith Barnham explains, is the solution. In THE BURNING ANSWER he uncovers the connections between physics and politics that have resulted in our dependence on a high-carbon lifestyle, which only a solar revolution can now overcome. Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 led to the atomic bomb and the widespread use of nuclear energy; it has delayed a solar revolution in many countries. In a fascinating tour of recent scientific history, Keith Barnham reveals Einstein’s other, less famous equation, the equation the world could have relied on.

Einstein’s other equation has given us the laptop and mobile phone, and it also provides the basis for solar technology. Some countries have harnessed this for their energy needs, and it is not too late for us to do the same.

In this provocative, inspiring, passionately argued book, Keith Barnham outlines actions that any one and all of us can take to make an impact now and on future generations. THE BURNING ANSWER is a solar manifesto for the new climate-aware generation, and a must-read for climate-change sceptics.

Peter Forbes, writing in the Guardian, has published thoughtful reviews of both these important books.




Social Cost of Carbon

Just published in September 2013, the results of a study with implications that are worth publicizing. After examining the true costs of electricity generation using carbon-based fuels, the article points out that the US (also true of most other countries) underestimates the costs of carbon pollution and climate change. Without properly accounting for pollution costs, natural gas appears to be the cheapest generation option for new power plants. The estimates here show that if environmental costs are taken into account, renewable sources of energy are already more cost effective than either natural gas, oil  or coal.

The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for modernising our (US) electricity system

Abstract: The US government must use an official estimate of the “social cost of carbon” (SCC) to estimate carbon emission reduction benefits for proposed environmental standards expected to reduce CO2emissions. The SCC is a monetized value of the marginal benefit of reducing one metric ton of CO2. Estimates of the SCC vary widely. The US government uses values of 11,33, and $52 per metric ton of CO2, classifying the middle value as the central figure and the two others for use in sensitivity analyses. Three other estimates using the same government model but lower discount rates put the figures at 62,122, and $266/ton. In this article, we calculate, on a cents-per-kilowatt-hour basis, the environmental cost of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel generation and add it to production costs. With this, we compare the total social cost (generation plus environmental costs) of building new generation from traditional fossil fuels versus cleaner technologies. We also examine the cost of replacing existing coal generation with cleaner options, ranging from conventional natural gas to solar photovoltaic. We find that for most SCC values, it is more economically efficient (from a social cost–benefit perspective) for the new generation to come from any of these cleaner sources rather than conventional coal, and in several instances, the cleanest sources are preferable to conventional natural gas. For existing generation, for five of the six SCC estimates we examined, replacing the average existing coal plant with conventional natural gas, natural gas with carbon capture and storage, or wind increases economic efficiency. At the two highest SCCs, solar photovoltaic and coal with carbon capture and storage are also more efficient than maintaining a typical coal plant.

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